Clipped and Marked? Part 1

If you live north of the equator, you’ve noticed the days getting longer. Your bees have noticed, too. Maybe you’ve already had your first late-winter inspection.  Hopefully, you are not peering into hollow tombs, but instead you’re seeing bustling little cities. Either way – good hives or dead hives – you will probably need to buy some queens. You’ll need to requeen some hives and split the strongest to replace the deadest.

I will write more, later, about recognizing queen quality, selecting a queen breeder, raising your own queens, and  introducing queens. For today and tomorrow, I’d like to write a few words about a question you may be asked when you order queens: “Clipped and marked?”

Look closely, you’ll see the queen’s left wing has been neatly clipped.

Tomorrow, we will look at marking queens. The question for today is: “Clipped?” When you are asked this, it means that the queen supplier is offering to clip a wing on the queen they will ship to you. The questions you may be asking yourself are “Does it hurt? Does it damage the queen? Why would I want that?”

As far as we know (and we don’t know everything) snipping the queen’s wing tip does not cause any more pain than a hair cut or nail clip causes either you or Fido. There is, of course, the possibility of making a mistake (a queen breeder I know complained that his toughest, strongest hired man sometimes clipped a queen’s leg by accident) so if you are really worried about contributing to a clip culture, you can tell the queen breeder, “No, thanks.” But if you do request clipping, you will almost certainly receive an uninjured queen that will live as long as any other queen.

If there is a possibility of injury, why get a clipped queen? Some beekeepers think that clipping will prevent swarming. If your bees get ready to head for the trees, a clipped queen is stuck. The queen begins to head for the sky with her hive mates. Then, embarrassingly, she crashes at the hive’s lighting board. Irritated, the bees all fly back, encourage her to try flying again, but she just turns around and ambles back to the nest. Defeated. The bees wait a few days and then take off when one of the ripe swarm cells ruptures and a new queen emerges. The new queen (still a virgin and quite energetic) will likely kill the hive’s clipped and disgraced queen. At this point, the bees may wait for the new queen to mate, then swarm with her. Or, they swarm when the virgin takes flight, causing a lot of confusion. Either way, you still lose a swarm. Clipping is no substitute for good colony management that prevents swarming.

Bees - May Swarm at the Lot

Clipping: no substitute for good colony management.

So, if clipping doesn’t prevent swarming, why is it done? Do I recommend it? If you are a new beekeeper and do not yet have a lot of experience handling queens, you should consider clipping. Your queen could fly away during hive manipulations.  This is not common, but new queens are energetic, light-weight, and eager to escape – especially during their first few days on the job.

If you are installing packages and quick-release the queen by opening her cage so she can quickly get to work (a good practice), she may dart out of the cage and take to the air. As another example, you may introduce your caged queen using an introductory screen. You need to move her from the cage to the screen and she may fly away at that point.

Sometimes, during the first few weeks after establishing the new queen in a nuc, you may pull a brood frame from the hive and then see a flash – your biggest and most valuable bee has taken to the sky. These things are rare, but all beekeepers eventually get to experience the sickening thrill of seeing the hive’s mom vanish n thin air. All these episodes are prevented by a simple, delicate snip of the tip of the queen’s wing.

There is yet another reason some beekeepers prefer clipped wings. It helps identify the queen’s age. Queens rarely last longer than three years. If your queen is clipped, the breeder will likely cut the tip of the queen’s right wing this year because 2016 is an even-numbered year. Last year’s queen should have been clipped on her left wing. If, next April, you find a queen with a left-clipped wing, you will know at a glance that she is entering her third year and she is not the homegrown progeny of a swarm or supercedure. She is a queen which you purchased in 2015. You might consider replacing her, especially if her brood pattern is poor.

Don't hold her legs; don't use garden shears.

Don’t use garden shears.
– from Sanford and Bonney’s Keeping Bees

You may wish to clip your own queens’ wings when you spot a new, fully mated, queen in your hive.  Some beekeepers always carry neat, sharp wing clippers which may be purchased from equipment dealers.

Others use fingernail scissors. You need sharp scissors for a clean cut. If you tatter or pull on the wing as you cut, you risk muscle injury to the queen. Be careful. Don’t use garden shears, but don’t be afraid to clip if you have valid reasons.

holding queen 3Should you clip your own, use bare hands, gently (gently!) hold the queen’s head and thorax in your non-dominant hand, and ease the open scissors around the tip (one-fourth inch, or 6 mm) of both wings on one side and snip. Some beekeepers hold the queen’s legs, but I’ve felt the queens wiggle and try to pull loose and have worried about damaging a leg. And believe me, making a splint for a queen bee and getting her to use it is a lot of work that care and caution could have prevented!

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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2 Responses to Clipped and Marked? Part 1

  1. Chris says:

    Great post! I’ve never had clipped the wings of my queens, nor bought them clipped Thankfully I haven’t had them try to fly away when I pull the frame she’s on (knock on wood).

    Liked by 1 person

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